Journalism has many battles to fight in these troubled times, but the cause of Internet freedom and saving the web from destruction needs to be at the top of the agenda.
The murder of journalist James Foley has sparked increasing talk about terrorism, free speech and control of the Internet. It’s a debate that should trouble all journalists and media.
The innocence of the world-wide web as a progressive feel-good home for ideas, opinions, humane communications and the trivial back-chat of hundreds of millions of people is long gone.
Increasingly, the web is a hub for hate speech, bullying, pornography and global crime as well as a propaganda tool for unscrupulous politicians, states and terrorists.
At the same time it has become a haven of sophisticated snooping. The Internet industry, faced with an audience that refuses to pay for online services, has developed a market model which allows advertisers and corporations to monitor our personal lives in the name of marketing and selling their goods.
They have also been complicit, as revealed by the Snowden affair and the scandal of America’s NSA communications programmes, in helping the US government to refine its own systems of secret surveillance of their citizens at home and abroad.
Now the video of the beheading of James Foley, a very public murder carried out by ISIS, or the Islamic State, circulated via the web to an audience of millions, has prompted new calls for laws to curb the Internet.
The video, initially posted on YouTube, was quickly removed and it was also taken down by Twitter. But tens of millions of people, among them thousands of journalists, did watch it, including the victim’s family.
Was this ethical? Were we not complicit in giving the perpetrators of this despicable murder the propaganda victory their action craved?
These questions challenge our individual appetite for access to anything that the web provides, but they also highlight our collective responsibility to protect the Internet from abuse.
In particular, we need to prevent the spread of violent and hateful images. The question is whether we need stronger laws to achieve it. In many Western countries the use of the Internet for hate speech or to aid terrorism or to download child pornography is already outlawed.
The Foley video was a dramatic example of how Internet propaganda works and how it is almost impossible to control. This was murder, pure and simple. And it was circulated with one intent – to glorify the appalling violence carried out in the name of Islamic State and to recruit support for its war on secularism and moderate Islam in Syria and Iraq.
This is an organisation that fights on all fronts. Its military manoeuvres are backed up by careful and tactical use of online information. The YouTube launch of this slick and stylish production was an audacious act of social media propaganda providing perfect content for a global audience.
Images from the video were republished in traditional media around the world. This is not surprising for a story of high public importance, but it produced a massive surge of publicity that provided Islamic State with a direct hit in their information offensive.
Even though social networks and the authorities responded quickly – police in the UK warned users who posted links to the Foley video that they could be breaking these aforementioned laws which ban the spread of extremist material – it was too little and much too late. Blocked accounts linked to terrorism can always reappear elsewhere, often on smaller social networks that quickly end up back on Twitter.
The question now being asked is how we can best combat this in future. Is it only new and stronger laws that can purge the net of terrorist propaganda?
However, increasing the use of law in this area is not guaranteed to work. Legal action by governments may push the terrorists temporarily into the dark corners of the worldwide web, but to a tech-savvy audience their messages will still be accessible.
The greater danger is that more censorship will merely open the door to yet more political interference in our online communications.
Already countries like Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and China, are well-skilled in the dark arts of internet censorship. China, in particular, uses anti-terrorism and protection of “true freedom of speech” as an excuse for surveillance of personal communications and control of social networks.
Many western countries are also in discussions about moving towards more intrusive, legally-defined policies that will regulate the Internet at the expense of free expression.
There are other solutions. One could be to invest more time, resources and policy effort into softer options, not least promoting the value of self-restraint and self-regulation as a way of choking off support for terrorism.
We need more effective campaigns to isolate extremists, to counter their explicit recruitment campaigning, particularly among the young, and, above all, to reinforce the value of self-regulation at all levels of online communication.
Certainly, the Internet industry has to be more convincing and more committed to self-regulation, which tends to be weak because it relies on users to blow the whistle over abusive material.
There may be no alternative that will adequately protect Internet freedom, but social networks, as well as Internet behemoths like Google, need to work together to lay down red lines that define the limits of Internet tolerance and they need more transparent and effective take-down strategies.
Above all, the industry must spend much more of its lucrative income from Internet advertising to promote critical thinking at all levels about the need for individual and collective responsibility in our online communications.
Media players and Internet companies could also work together to create stronger Internet community guidelines that will make self-regulation viable and credible.
Such co-operation would also provide a welcome opportunity for media professionals to assert the importance of journalism-based standards of content control, in particular ethics of accuracy, humanity and accountability.
It is not just the extremists that should worry us. Everyone who clicks on a terrorist video without good cause or who uses the Internet for acts of malice or hatred or humiliation is behaving in a self-destructive way. They undermine their own freedom but they also further diminish the value of the web as a progressive force in the modern world.
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